Last week, I found myself in Georgia, heading down highway 78 between Atlanta and my old childhood home. My mother and I had just finished a leisurely 3 day drive down from New Hampshire, and we relished our weird adventures along the way. You see, that drive only takes three days when you do it like us. We drove into the mountains and through strange little Appalachian towns, and even stopped at a Revolutionary War battlefield. What more could a bored southern historian ask for?
We weren’t in a hurry. Grave personal matters awaited us on the other side, but we knew we’d get there. Sure enough, we made it to Atlanta on the third day, and the fun was largely over. My mom packed up a rental car and I carried on in the one we’d brought with us. We had the same destination, but two vehicles afforded us more freedom, as well as a way back to the massive Atlanta airport.
It was pretty late by this point. When I hit the exit for 78, it was already close to 11 PM. Taking the interstate would have gotten me home a little faster, but I didn’t care. Rather than following the bumpy, narrow interstate, I wanted to cruise down the lonely highway that would take me home my way: through strange little towns and yawning stretches of nothing.
This time, all that nothing was more familiar. The highway slithered through towns I’d known in my youth, and through twists and turns that I drove in my teens. It was comforting, and after years spent in New England, I loved that nothingness. On the lengthy drive from the exit to my childhood home, I didn’t see more than three other cars on the road.
Along the way, I listened to A Southern Rock Opera by a band called the Drive-By Truckers. I may post a review of it one day. It certainly deserves one. It’s a grimy and brutally honest critique of the rural south, spoken by a band that grew up in the same region as myself. They sing about Ronnie Van Zant, the original front-man of Lynyrnd Skynyrd and one of the writers of Sweet Home Alabama. He wanted to show a good side of the south in a time when there was little good to say. The band also sings about Neil Young, a 70s rocker well known for his folksy music, his high pitched voice, and his fiery and on-point criticisms of the evils going on in Alabama during the civil rights movement.
According to the Drive-By Truckers, the south needed both of them. I believe that is true. The band doesn’t cut the south any slack, but there’s a lot of love underlining that criticism, and the stories told remind me so much of people I’ve known. I love it, and it was a perfect album to melt beneath as I made that drive.
Going home it always bitter sweet. As I crossed into my home county, I felt the anxiety settling in. I was home, and that was only comforting until it suddenly wasn’t. Personal challenges and family drama awaited me, but as I rolled up to that old country house and retrieved the key from its hiding place, I was still humming along to A Southern Rock Opera. The deeper meaning resonated in my mind. There is good and bad in Alabama. We need both Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young. Whenever I go home, I need them both.
It’s okay to acknowledge duality. The world is rarely as simple as we want it to be. I’ve talked before about how I have always wanted to love Alabama, because the familiar sights and scents still evoke strong feelings in me. Nostalgia can only comfort me for so long. It doesn’t take long for the culture to suffocate me. Fortunately, this was a short trip. It was just long enough to see the people I love and take a good, deep breath of magnolia. When it was time to go, I thought about Sweet Home Alabama and the desolate highway that took me there. I’m sure I’ll see it again, and I’m sure the music will be there to comfort me again.